Bill Clinton talks with problem-solver, physician, engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, problem-solver, big dreamer, professional optimist, and definite non-whiner Peter Diamandis at Wednesday, September 24th’s closing session of the 2014 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative about Diamandis book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.
Come on, admit it. We just do.
We can’t help ourselves.
It’s because we spend so much time and energy arguing that things need to be better and that requires making the case that things are bad. Things are bad. But we can get so caught up in talking about what’s bad and how bad and why it’s bad and whose fault it is that it’s bad we forget there’s anything else including that there’s a hopeful point to talking about what’s bad.
Trouble is few of us have the power or the resources do much on our own about what’s wrong, and talking about what’s wrong without doing anything to fix it is just complaining and constant complaining turns into whining and whining turns into a habit.
Two of our favorite whines go like this.
Why isn’t anybody listening to us?
Why aren’t politicians doing what we want them to do?
Conservatives whine too.
This is new for them. That’s why they’re doing so much of it. It’s a novelty. A new sensation that excites them. Like little kids who’ve figured out how to make themselves burp, they have to hear themselves do it over and over again. They used to grump and harumph. That’s when they were focused on making the case that things are just fine the way they are and liberals should quit their whining. They still do this. A current variant is the You call yourselves poor? You have a refrigerator what more do you want nonsense.
Doesn’t occur to them that the answer might be, Food to put in it, would be nice. A way to pay the electric bill, like a job, would also help.
No, as far as they care to know, things are fine, and if they’re not fine, they could be worse. In fact, they were worse and not all that long ago, so go away and leave me alone and stop asking me to care about your problems, I have enough of my own.
But lately or what seems lately to me, they’ve taken up whining. I blame Nixon. It probably started before him, but he made whining his political idiom and infected the entire Republican party. Reagan didn’t change that. He indulged it and the chuckled at the effect. People still mistake his geniality for good humor and a cheerful nature. It was the cheerfulness of a salesman who knew he had the suckers on the hook. But he’s long gone and even his supposed heirs whine worse than Nixon.
They whine between shouts, screams, growls, and moans, but they whine.
It’s somewhat the same for them as it’s been for liberals. They’re spending their time and energy making the case that things are bad---of course, they mean bad for them---and get so caught up in talking about what’s bad and how bad and why it’s bad and whose fault it is it’s bad they forget there’s anything else.
They don’t have much else, as it turns out. Certainly not real solutions. God will provide or he will punish, that’s about it. Still, as it has with us liberals, constant complaining turns into whining and whining becomes a habit.
One of the things I really enjoy about the Clinton Global Initiative---and I’ve now been to four of the seven meetings in New York City since 2008---is that the discussions take place outside typical notions of liberal and conservative politics.
That is, there’s no whining.
Obviously, this isn’t because no one is making the case that things are bad or talking about what’s bad or how bad or why it’s bad or whose fault it is it’s bad. The news on ebola is getting scarier. In Sierra Leone, new cases are doubling every thirty to forty days. Every twenty seconds a child under five will die from a water-borne disease. More people on earth have access to a cell phone than to a clean glass of water. One point three billion people have no access to electricity. Throughout the world the situations for women and girls continues to be miserable, their rights denied, their opportunities for education and self-improvement non-existent, their health and lives under constant threat.
But the people doing most of the talking are problem-solvers actively at work solving problems or trying to solve them and naturally they prefer to talk about that work and talking about work they love tends to make people sound confident, grounded, practical-minded, grown up, and happy.
Doesn’t mean they get giddy.
The problem-solvers at CGI speak with urgency, concern, anxiety, anger, even fear, although usually on behalf of others. The get frustrated, exasperated, and discouraged. They try to be pragmatic and realistic and not let their hopes carry them away. But they’re all still hopeful and optimistic, some enthusiastically, excitedly, energetically, infectiously so. A few come across as professional optimists.
One of the most optimistic I heard speak at this year’s meeting was Peter Diamandis.
Diamandis is an MIT-trained engineer, a Harvard-trained MD. He’s the chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation which sponsors competitions for funding for the design and development of new technologies, software, systems, and methods to put to work solving problems “believed to be unsolvable, or that have no clear path toward a solution.” A current one of these competitions is called, with a direct and respectful nod to Star Trek, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, “a $10 million global competition to stimulate innovation and integration of precision diagnostic technologies, helping consumers make their own reliable health diagnoses anywhere, anytime.” He’s co-founded two schools of higher education. Singularity University and the International Space University. He’s started and helped start several business and research ventures inspired by his lifelong interest in space exploration. When he was in eighth grade he won a first prize in a design competition sponsored by Estes Model Rockets for his design for a multiple platform launcher. Kid after my own heart. Another venture not apparently directly related to space travel is Human Longevity, Inc.
Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) is a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company. Using advances in genomic sequencing, the human microbiome, proteomics, informatics, computing, and cell therapy technologies, HLI is building the world’s most comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes to tackle the diseases associated with aging-related human biological decline. HLI is also leading the development of cell-based therapeutics to address age-related decline in endogenous stem cell function. HLI is concentrating on cancer, diabetes and obesity, heart and liver diseases, and dementia.
Probably should have mentioned Diamandis also has a degree from MIT in molecular genetics.
He’s working with a team of billionaires and movie director James Cameron on a plan to mine asteroids. He does not appear to be crazy.
He is a big dreamer. But he has a record of turning his dreams into realities and the realities into money and the money into financing for other dreamers trying to turn their dreams into realities.
Much of his big dreaming sounds like pie in the sky and building castles in the air. He calls it “moonshot thinking.” I’d sum it up as 3D Printing in the Cloud.
Apparently, this is a thing.
I don’t know how it works.
I don’t know how 3D printing anywhere works.
Diamandis does, and it’s one of the many things that make him such an optimist.
Diamandis is inclined to say things like “The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities” and “The best way for an entrepreneur to become a billionaire is to help a billion people.”
Referencing Stephen Pinker he’ll tell you we’re living during the most peaceful period in recorded human history.
The bottom line is you think we can handle nine billion people without burning up the planet, and you think we can feed children well-enough so that they can learn, and you believe that through technology widely disseminated we can not only educate people but empower them to create enough income generating activity themselves that we can essentially have a very low structural unemployment level in every country.
Diamandis agreed that that about sums it up.
New technologies succeed by taking what once was scarce and making it abundant, and he’s looking forward to the 21st Century as a time when that will happen on an astounding and unprecedented scale, increasing prosperity around the world.
The big questions are, he says, “How can we do that with literacy? How can we do that with health? How can we use technology to create a scale that allows every child to have the best possible education, the best possible health care, independent of where they live or where they were born?”
He’s co-written a book with Steven Kotler that not only makes the case that will happen but shows where and how it is already happening, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think and he and Clinton sat down together to talk about abundance and Abundance, the prospect and the book. Clinton had his copy with him. “I love flacking other people’s books,” he said, holding it up. He loves this book, which he’s clearly read and taken to heart. He read from it as he interviewed Diamandis, but I got the feeling the reading was for show and he could have recited from it from memory.
Clinton started off by asking, “Why are you so optimistic about the future? Don’t you read the papers.”
Diamandis’ offhand answer to the second question was that he tries not to, said in a tone that implied he recommends others try to not too. Too much negativity. Too much focusing on problems and not enough on problem-solving. Too much---he didn’t use the word but I suspect he’d nod knowingly if you did---whining.
The short version of his answer to the first question is: Information, education, technology.
The short version of the short version is: the internet.
A lot of the basis for Diamandis’ optimism is his faith in the increasing utility of the internet as a development tool and delivery system for new technologies, e.g. 3D printing in the cloud.
It’s more than taken for granted by now that the internet is a revolutionary system for delivering information. More people have access to more information than ever before. As Diamandis pointed out to Clinton, “A Maasai warrior in the middle of Kenya today on a smart phone has more access to knowledge and information than you when you were the President twenty years ago.” (Clinton’s self-deprecating response: “That’s a frigtening thought.”) We use it and rely on it, celebrate it and addict ourselves to it, chiefly as a very efficient medium for mass communication.
Well, that, and a convenient way to shop and pay bills without the dirty business of having to deal with real people.
It’s taken for granted that the delivering of information and the communication and virtual social contact that requires and creates are a good in and of themselves.
My own whine is that that’s pretty much all the internet does these days, deliver information that consumers of it can’t use except to entertain ourselves. That’s what makes time online so frustrating and, especially in the cloud banks I tend to hang out in, maddening. (And I mean maddening as in making angry and making crazy.) There’s no material world effect.
Diamandis sees the internet a little differently. Communication, information, and interconnectivity are important but they’re more like fuel. Hearing him talk about it, the birth of the internet sounds more like the invention of the steam engine, the ur-machine whose powering of other machines led to the invention and building of more machines. The internet is a knowledge and technology generator.
Diamandis went on to discuss some areas in which he is most optimistic. Food, energy, and education.
He’s looking forward to the day when, through aquaculture---hydroponics on a grand scale---and vertical farming, cities will be able to feed themselves, growing enough food for all the people living in them at a great savings in energy, manhours, waste, and money, much of that savings due to a marked decrease in transportation costs. As things are, when people in New York go out for a nice dinner, items on the menu travel an average of 1600 miles before landing on their plates. “Los Angeles would starve in I think it’s about three days,” he said, “if you shut down transportation.”
We’re talking about having an XPrize in vertical farming. The notion that we can in fact, in a downtown New York or downtown Dallas or L.A., have a building that is able to capture the sun, is able to finely tune the pH of the water, is able to grow twenty-four hours a day and provide the ideal growing economy.
Meanwhile, the earth is pulsating with abundant but so far untapped energy. He didn’t mean shale oil and wasn’t boosting fracking. He meant geo-thermal and solar. He’s particularly keen on solar.
The earth gets five thousand times more energy from the sun than we use as a species in a year. If you talk to folks like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, [they] believe we’ll reach fifty to a hundred percent energy from the sun in the United States in the [next] twenty years. And the poorest parts of the world are the sunniest parts of the world. So I think we’re headed towards a solar revolution. And if you have abundant energy, you also have abundant clean water. And as you know well, sir, half the disease burden on earth is due to unclean drinking water.
As for education, well, hold on a second.
It was a nice change to be taking part, even if only vicariously, in some problem-solving instead of being a voice in the collective whine. But then Diamandis grew excited about the prospect of Artificially Intelligent “teachers” who would, over the internet, give “personalized” educations to students living far from any schools. Students will be able to attend classes in the cloud with teachers who “know” them and understand their needs and their individual learning styles as well as the best teachers in the best schools in here in the non-virtual world.
“I’m very proud,” Diamandis said, “It was this week, at the United Nations, at the Social Mid-Summit, we announced a fifteen million dollar prize called the Global Learning XPrize.”
We are challenging teams around the world to build a piece of software---not a hardware prize. The cost of hardware’s plummeting.---a piece of software that can take a child anywhere, who’s illiterate, to basic reading, writing, and numeracy in eighteen months. There’s nearly a billion [illiterate] people, two-thirds of those are women, a quarter of a billion are kids, and the notion is that technology is progressing at such a rate that we have the ability, the same way Google democratized access to information, to democratize access to the best teachers.
This sounds great. So does what he went on to say in a minute.
We expect to have hundreds or thousands of teams compete and take the the top five pieces of software and deploy it to five thousand kids throughout Africa and test and see what the best one is, and then open-source the software, with the vision that any Android tablet or phone made in the future will have this software will have this software on it from the start.
It was what he said in between I didn’t like the sound of. Brought out my inner Blade Runner.
Imagine an A.I., or imagine a piece of software that knows a child’s favorite color, sports, actors, presidents and can literally give them a personalized education.
More to the realistic point, I don’t think people want their most intimate relationships to be with software. We need the comfort and sense of companionship that can only come from physical contact with other human beings. We want the tricorder held by Dr McCoy who when he says, “Dammit, I’m a doctor not a bricklayer” is taking our pulse, feeling if we have a fever, and probing for our pain, with hands that can actually lay bricks and do the doctoring. We want Mrs McLean (my fourth grade teacher, the teacher who knew me and understood me best) hovering over our desk, smiling as we figure out it for ourselves that 10 x 12 – 7 = 113. And even more realistically, I doubt that if and when such software is developed it will be only used to staff virtual schoolrooms in the remotest villages in the more undeveloped nations of the developing world.
And here’s where I get skeptical.
New technologies have a history of putting human beings out of work.
The new jobs they employ many fewer people than the ones they replace.
Clinton asked Diamandis about this. He spoke with sincere concern about the continuing scourge of mass joblessness---unfortunately but tellingly using the dreaded phrase: “structural unemployment”---and noted how throughout most of history “except for farmers, most everybody who’s worked has worked for somebody else.” Diamandis believes that in the future the economy will grow and thrive in ways that will encourage and support and even depend on individual enterprise and entrepreneurship---There’s a chapter in Abundance Clinton summed up as being about “the Do It Yourself Economy”---and Clinton wondered how this was going to happen.
The internet, again. Thanks to it, according to Diamandis, by 2020, we will have around five billion people connected online---in 2010 it was 1.8 billion---all of them with access to the newest technologies that,with the help of crowd sourcing, they will be able to teach themselves how to use and put to work in building their own businesses, and then, again, through crowd sourcing, they will be able to find customers and clients they couldn’t imagine reaching before.
That’s three billion new minds entering the global economy, three billion new creators, contributors, trillions of dollars flowing into the economy no one’s speaking about, and these individuals, no matter where they are on the planet, now have access to Google, they have access to A.I., 3D printing on a cloud, they have access to extraordinary technologies. They also have access to crowd funding. There’ll be fifteen billion dollars in crowd funding by 2015, a hundred billion by 2020, so they have access to capital, crowd funding, and we’re now empowered to become entrepreneurs. And I teach this, that the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest opportunities. The best way for an entrepreneur to become a billionaire is to help a billion people. This kind of beautiful parity exists right now. And a lot of young people in the developing world are entrepreneurs to exist. We’re giving them the tools to up their game.
Ok, never mind 3D printing in the cloud. This does sound like pie in the sky. It also sounds suspiciously like a global and virtual version of the entrepreneurial economy getter known as the service economy which a friend of mine prophetically defined back in the 1980s as a nation of minimum wage workers delivering pizzas to each other and which we Americans have been trying to sell to ourselves for three and a half decades.
Diamandis would almost certainly say that the reason it hasn’t taken off yet is the technology has only just begun to become available. But it is becoming available, more and more of it at a more and more rapid rate.
But I just don’t buy that we’re going to build a vital and expansive economy or a particularly civil or companionable society by having people delivering virtual pizzas to one another in the cloud.
That was a whine.
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, published by the Free Press, is available in paperback and hardcover at Amazon but you’ll probably want to read it on your kindle. Since, as Diamandis sees it, in the future we’re all going to be living in the cloud, we might as well start getting used to it.